Underworld - Dubnobasswithmyheadman - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Underworld - Dubnobasswithmyheadman

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2014-10-06

One of the first albums I ever got into, Dubnobasswithmyheadman effectively introduced me to electronic music along with The Orb’s U.F.Orb and Massive Attack’s Protection. While the latter album was easy for my pubescent mind to grasp thanks to its largely song-based structure, the other two were trickier, the mindset of their makers more elusive for little suburban me. But hey – I was also obsessing over Gong, Pink Floyd, The Doors and Ozric Tentacles. Basically, if it was trippy and weird, I loved it, even if I didn’t understand why.

My sister put this, Underworld’s breakthrough album, on a mixtape for me. Until I started buying my own records, I was almost completely reliant on my sisters for my musical education and, boy, did they do a good job. I remember really liking the sound of the album but finding it a little forbidding. In retrospect, it was my first experience of discovering music I didn’t initially love but found so compelling I kept returning to until I got it. (The same thing would later happen with R.E.M. and Nirvana).

And now Dubnobasswithmyheadman is 20 years old and has aged astonishingly well. The minimalist techno of its outstanding opening statements, ‘Dark and Long’ and ‘Mmm… Skyscraper I Love You’, are still effortlessly seductive and confident. Even to 11-year-old me, sat in my bedroom in my childhood home in Berkshire, these two tracks - mysterious, throbbing, mantric, completely other – seemed to promise something I couldn’t yet conceptualise but already knew I wanted to seek out.

While ‘Dark and Long’s surrealist lyrics certainly hooked my mind (“Me, I’m just a waitress, she said/ I went and got a new head, she said”), there was also something so different in the way Karl Hyde spoke-sang the words, vulnerable and sexy in a way I’d never heard a man be before, and yet as machine-like as the beats behind him. It was this mixture of the human with the artificial that pushed Underworld right to forefront of what was happening in UK music at the time, making them unlikely stars after years of relative obscurity.

The addition of Darren Emerson’s DJ skills meant that Underworld were able to shift from synth-pop curiosity (they’d finished the 80s providing tour support for Eurythmics) to dance music mavens with surprising ease. Like Pulp, they might have been around for a decade or more, but when their moment came they seized it firmly, riding the crest of the zeitgeist.

In one way, Dubnobasswithmyheadman feels very much of its time, and that’s in its profusion of long, instrumentally-focused tracks. Numbers like the ‘I Feel Love’-referencing ‘Spoonman’ pump along for a good seven minutes, while the 13-minute ‘Mmm… Skyscraper I Love You’ is effectively two tracks in one. Compare with last year’s huge dance album, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which for all its genre-melding, took care not to alienate mainstream audiences by straying too far from a reliable pop chorus.

In comparison, Dubnobasswithmyheadman made few concessions to mainstream tastes, and yet it was an era-defining album. It does contain variety, of course; ‘Tongue’ is a gorgeous, ambient piece, shimmering and pulsing like a heavily stoned Kraftwerk, while the following ‘Dirty Epic’ shows their early-80s synth-pop roots in its moody atmosphere, hooky chorus and Hyde’s Marc Almond-meets-Bernard Sumner vocals.

Like New Order, Underworld also spiced their electronic workouts with hard-edged guitar, something that conveniently meant they chimed with a UK musical climate which was already heavily fetishising ‘classic’ indie-rock sounds and would soon, sadly, embrace the kind of pop conservatism espoused by the just-emerging Oasis. Perhaps this, aside from the album’s obvious quality, is why it’s now being unanimously granted ‘classic’ status: it’s a relic from one of those rare moments when the pop floodgates opened and new sounds, new ideas, new voices were able to storm the mainstream.

Of course, it couldn’t last, it never does. By the time ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’ featured on the Trainspotting soundtrack and became the band’s biggest hit, something had already been lost. Though undoubtedly one of the most uncompromising songs to ever make the UK top five, Hyde sounds more like a loutish Britpop lad than a sensation-starved pleasure droid.

Underworld would regain their alienated cool on 1999’s Beaucoup Fish. Hyde has recently collaborated with Brian Eno, sealing his place in the pantheon of seminal electronic artists. Underworld will never be completely of-the-moment again, of course, but they left, in Dubnobasswithmyheadman, a time capsule of radical, uncompromising sounds which a new generation are already discovering.

Of course, this being the deluxe edition, we’ve got a load of extra tracks. Some of these are excellent, as good as anything on the album proper. In fact, I can’t recall another reissue which one can so justly claim is worth buying for the extra material. ‘Eclipse’, for example, is a stunningly beautiful house workout, with what sounds like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s ‘Maid of Orleans’ interpolated into it, while ‘Rez’ is a forever-undulating sci-fi-funk monster.

These numbers have stood the test of time astonishingly well and deserve the epithet ‘classic’ far more than any concurrent Britpop chug-alongs (Gene, I’m looking your way). 

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